Atlanta Falcons  

 

Matt Ryan-Shanahan bond on display as Falcons rip Seahawks

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ATLANTA -- He stood at the back of the west end zone at the Georgia Dome, presiding over a huddle that had every right to be teeming with tension. Matt Ryan's team held a tenuous 12-10 lead over the Seattle Seahawks with 3:48 remaining in the first half of Saturday's NFC Divisional Round playoff game, and he had very little room to operate and a whole lot of potential for a game-turning mistake.

On paper, the situation called for the second-seeded Atlanta Falcons to play it safe against an ever-dangerous Seahawks defense. Yet neither Ryan, the team's All-Pro quarterback, nor Kyle Shanahan, the Falcons' red-hot offensive coordinator, was having that.

Even with the ball at Atlanta's own 1-yard line, this dynamic duo was stress free. The Falcons, like rapper Jay-Z, had 99 problems -- but a run wasn't one.

"We've been aggressive all year, even when we're backed up, and we weren't about to change," Ryan said shortly after the Falcons had completed a 36-20 victory over the Seahawks that propelled them into next Sunday's NFC championship game. "We thought if we could get a little breathing room, we could go out and do a few things, and it just kept building and building until we finished the drive."

The Falcons' nine-play, 99-yard scoring drive began with an eight-yard completion to star receiver Julio Jones and ended with a 14-yard strike to running back Tevin Coleman in the left corner of the end zone -- with seven other Ryan passes in between. It was the pivotal sequence of a tour de force performance by the quarterback known as Matty Ice, an MVP candidate who put up prolific numbers (26 of 37, 338 yards, three touchdowns, no interceptions) in winning his first playoff game in four years.

Ryan was locked in and, mentally, in lockstep with Shanahan, a shrewd play-caller who remains a candidate for the San Francisco 49ers' vacant head coaching position. That wasn't always the case in 2015, Shanahan's first season with the Falcons, which began 5-0 but was later derailed by a six-game losing streak.

A year ago at this time, there were rumblings of a rift between Ryan and Shanahan, something both parties have since insisted was overblown.

It is true, however, that the quarterback and coordinator made a point of nurturing their working relationship over the offseason, including a clear-the-air session in Southern California in which Matty Ice added a new layer to his nickname.

"We just worked it out over a couple of beers," Ryan told me after Saturday's victory. "Last year was overblown, but we basically sat there and figured out some things. He learned what works for me, and I learned what works for him, and it was that simple. And we're in a really, really good place now."

Shanahan, along with Falcons head coach Dan Quinn and quarterbacks coach Matt LaFleur, had flown to Southern California last spring to spend some time with Ryan, who was engaged in offseason training drills at 3DQB, the Huntington Beach-based biomechanics training facility founded by former Major League pitcher Tom House. Their trip included an evening visit to House's nearby residence at which Ryan and the three coaches decompressed over some cold ones and emerged in a better mental space.

"Look, this all sounds totally over-dramatized, but we've definitely grown over the past year," Shanahan said as he dressed in the coach's lounge inside the Falcons' locker room. "One thing I've learned about Matt is that he and I are extremely similar. We're both intense, we're locked in, we give it everything we can and we take our jobs very, very seriously. We're both perfectionists, too.

"Because of all that, it's a perfect combination. But it takes time."

Time is sometimes a luxury in an increasingly impatient NFL landscape, as evidenced by Ryan's uneven career arc. After a brilliant rookie season, Ryan was anointed as a rising star who stood at the forefront of the next generation of franchise quarterbacks.

He was on the verge of fulfilling his promise four years ago when, in a pair of heart-stopping playoff games at the Georgia Dome, he led the Falcons to a dramatic divisional-round victory over the Seahawks and engaged in a classic NFC championship clash against the San Francisco 49ers at the Georgia Dome.

Ultimately, Ryan and the Falcons came up 10 yards short of a Super Bowl appearance -- and then began a frustrating decline that caused numerous experts to conclude that the quarterback and his franchise were substandard.

Following consecutive losing seasons, Atlanta owner Arthur Blank fired coach Mike Smith hired Quinn, then Seattle's defensive coordinator, who was fresh off the team's soul-crushing Super Bowl XLIX defeat to the New England Patriots.

Yet after Quinn's fast start degenerated into an 8-8 finish in 2015, the Falcons faced the familiar strains of skepticism from a growing legion of critics: That the team's infrastructure wasn't built for success at the highest level, and that Ryan lacked the ability to elevate an incomplete team.

"You know what -- you're never as far off as people think," Ryan said. "People drew all these conclusions about what we lacked, but really, we just needed to play a little better in some key moments, and we could have been right there. And really, you've just got to have role players who do their jobs and execute when you need to. We're doing that this year, and you see the results." Ryan produced at a ridiculously high level during the 2016 season, completing 69.9 percent of his passes for 4,944 yards, with 38 touchdowns, seven interceptions and a league-best 117.1 passer rating. He also set an NFL record by completing touchdown passes to 13 different receivers.

Counting Saturday's performance against the third-seeded Seahawks, he is on a five-game tear that is almost obscene: 115 of 157 completions for 1,469 yards, 14 touchdowns, no interceptions and a 131.8 rating.

"He played his ass off, man," Shanahan said. "There were a few times when I called throws against that defense that you can't block, at least for as long as the routes take, and he just let it go early with touch and trusted our guys to go get it. And it was especially cool because it wasn't always the guys we planned on -- Julio went out for awhile and we had to change our personnel, but the guys that were out there came through."

Among Ryan's gems: A 22-yard touch pass to wide receiver Mohamed Sanu on the left sideline on second-and-10 from his 14 on the 99-yard touchdown drive; a 12-yard rainbow to slot receiver Taylor Gabriel, whose diving catch near the left sideline on third-and-10 extended a third-quarter touchdown drive that put the Falcons up 26-10; and a 53-yard flare over the middle to halfback Devonta Freeman on third-and-4 from his own 31 late in the third quarter, setting up Bryant's second field goal for a 29-13 lead.

"I felt pretty damn good today," Ryan said. "I mean, I was comfortable. It went pretty much the way we planned it."

Shanahan's crafty gameplan was essentially a recruitment video for interested NFL owners. A prime example was Ryan's seven-yard touchdown pass to Jones, which tied the game at 7 with 14:14 left in the second quarter. Shanahan's call was for a running play, but when Ryan noticed the Seahawks' coverage -- cornerback Jeremy Lane playing outside-contain on Sanu, linebacker Bobby Wagner close to the box and cornerback Richard Sherman playing the deep-third of the end zone -- he instead threw quickly to Jones in the left slot for what turned out to be an easy score. "Sometimes, pre-snap, you know you've got it," Shanahan said. "That was one of those where, if they give you a certain look, he knows exactly where to go."

If Shanahan doesn't get the 49ers job, he'll likely enter next year's cycle as one of the hottest candidates on the market. It's somewhat scary to think about the havoc he and his quarterback might be wreaking on opponents after another year together, given their growth curve thus far.

"The whole thing with quarterbacks being 'elite' is that it takes a team," Shanahan said. "Matt has always played at a high level, and this year he's taken his game to another level, and the people around him have stepped up their game, too.

"Last year had its rough moments, but it was valuable. When you go through a six-game losing streak, you learn a lot about each other. We learned how we work under stress, and how we confront a bad situation, and how we try to fight our way out of it. I thought we did pretty well under the circumstances."

The circumstances now are far more festive. The Falcons will either travel to North Texas to face the top-seeded Dallas Cowboys or host the fourth-seeded Green Bay Packers, a victory away from taking the franchise to its second-ever Super Bowl. It's an opportunity he won't take lightly, given his four-year odyssey between conference title games.

"It went by in a blink," Ryan said of that four-year gap. "But yeah, I've waited for this day for a long time. And when it came, I was ready."

And on Saturday, for a quarterback who has come as far as Ryan has, traveling 99 yards was no big deal.

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